urban sociology puzzle and the public choice theory of police

A major theme of Goffman’s On the Run book/article is that the criminal justice system incapacitates Black men by entangling them with surveillance, leading many to become outlaws. This is in contrast to earlier work that claimed that police had abandoned, or had minimal involvement with, poor urban neighborhoods. So what’s the deal?

Here’s one suggested solution based on public choice theory and McCubbin’s old theory of public agencies, which claims that public agencies respond to financial and political incentives. Roughly speaking, police have choices and these choices come with very different pay offs. Call one option “beat policing.” The police pick up beats, they get involved, and have lots of contact with the population. The other option is called “fire alarm” policing. The police respond to complaints.

Add one additional assumption to the model – the voters who pay/support the police think that drugs and young Black men are the biggest “fires” that need to be put out. Voters don’t reward as much the police that do routine policing.There’s a lot of evidence for this. Police displays of drug caches after busts, forfeited assets going to police budgets, and the general demonization of young black men in the media.

Then, the conclusion of the model is fairly simple. Resources will be shifted to the drug trade and away from beats. The random citizen will wait for police help with, say, a car theft while police rush to conduct an endless string of busts and arrest, and thus create a pool of stigmatized men with arrest records.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 1, 2014 at 12:01 am

Posted in fabio, sociology

5 Responses

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  1. Incidentally, this argument is also made in Eugene Jarecki’s documentary, “The House I Live In.”



    September 1, 2014 at 2:54 am

  2. There is actually a vast array of literature, including some that is not so recent, suggesting a long and storied history of simultaneous overpolicing/punishment and underpolicing/punishment in Black neighborhoods. For instance, Oshinsky’s “Worse than Slavery” makes this argument about the Mississippi criminal justice system throughout the Jim Crow era, as does Stuntz in “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice.”



    September 2, 2014 at 12:55 am

  3. Thanks for the notes. I will definitely look into this.



    September 2, 2014 at 1:45 am

  4. […] few days ago, we discussed an empirical issue around Goffman’s On the Run ethnography. That work focuses on how police […]


  5. Your theoretical model raises a great question: When police are policing, what organizational goals are they actually trying to fulfill?


    Nick Judd

    September 6, 2014 at 4:12 am

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